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US Train Companies Consider Natural Gas over Diesel

For the past two weeks train industry executives from around the US have been holding private meetings to discuss the potential of using natural gas to power the trains, rather than diesel. The idea is popular amongst train operators, with some describing it as a huge transition in locomotive technology, similar to the move from coal engines to diesel.

Doug Longman, a researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory, said that “the railroads would really like to be able to use natural gas in their locomotives. It’s a cost issue.” Last year, the rising diesel prices led to the annual fuel bill for Union Pacific Railroad to reach $3.6 billion, accounting for 26 percent of overall expenses; up from 13 percent of total costs back in 2001.

The rail companies are confident that natural gas prices will remain low, giving them an advantage over diesel. Currently natural gas tends to sell for $1 - $2 less per gallon than diesel, and with industry leaders consuming one billion gallons of fuel a year, that sort of price difference can lead to hundreds of millions of dollars savings.

Related Article: Drowning in Natural Gas: Is the Answer Exports?

Although switching to natural gas isn’t all about savings.

 The diesel engines used presently by locomotives would have to be modified to run on natural gas, which according to Normand Pellerin, the assistant vice president for environment and sustainability for Canadian National Railways, would cost an estimated $600,000 to $1,000,000 each.

Another obstacle blocking the success of the idea is the storage of the natural gas in order to power the train as it travels around the country. This dilemma was at the heart of most of the discussions that took place over the last two weeks, and the favourite solution which they hope the government will approve, was to reintroduce a relic. A relic is one of the carts that used to carry coal for coal engines. That extra ‘fuel cart’ could be used to contain a large tank of LNG.

By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com



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  • Mike on June 19 2013 said:
    A couple of things Louis, I agree Natural Gas should be used but you use a couple of arguments that may be flawed. The tanks used for LNG and CNG are very different. For instance the LNG tank has an internal tank separated from the outer by insulation and vacuum to keep the heat out. LNG has to be at -161C to stay in liquid form a normal tank wont be able to keep the temperature low enough and pressure will start rising invariably venting the natural gas or even blowing up if the tank is not designed for it.

    Another thing is that natural gas is made over 90% out of methane and a molecule of methane has 24x the Greenhouse power of CO2.

    I suggest we do burn the Natural Gas... It might even be a good idea to burn it before it escapes from the permafrost in Antarctica and other places. That way we don't have to worry about it harming the atmosphere if the poles start melting.
  • Louis Mathews on October 16 2012 said:
    I've been sending emails to the transportation industy for over four years suggesting the switch over to natural gas. It is cleaner, should make engines last longer, and eliminate the need for diesel storage facilities. Natural gas can be piped to holding tanks and compressed on site. It is safer than liquid storage and easier to manage, in the case of leakage or fire since natural gas is lighter than air it vents upward and is less likely to pollute than a major diesel spill. The railroads already have thousands of tank cars that can be used to haul LNG/CNG and greatly expand the range before refueling Refueling would be as easy as switching tanker car(s) instead of refueling while coupled. The Refueling point can be easily isolated away from yard operations. I grew up next to a major rail yard in PA. and am a retired US Army First Sergeant, also retired firefighter with training at the US DEPT of Transportation Test Center in Pueblo, Colorado in rail emergency response and from BNSF safety class.
  • rick jones on October 14 2012 said:
    "Although switching to natural gas isn’t all about savings." Such phrasing suggests there might be additional reasons for the railroads to want to switch from diesel to natural gas. So, what are they?

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